Mike Teti never could have imagined the impact his decision to join the rowing team in high school would have on the rest of his life.
The story of Teti, now the head coach of the Cal men’s crew team, starts in West Philadelphia, as a kid who never thought to give much time to the ideas of college, traveling the world, or even the Olympics, where he’ll be coaching the USA men’s coxed eight this summer in London.
That is, until Teti joined the rowing team his senior year of high school, only to find a lifelong love for the sport that would take him to college, the Olympics, and around the world.
“When I went for the rowing team my senior year in high school, all the kids I was rowing with were all going to college,” Teti says. “I thought I was going to graduate and then I was going to get a full-time job working for Florsheim Shoes and I was perfectly happy with that.
“But I wanted rowing to last, so I went to college.”
Teti’s parents raised Mike and his nine siblings to understand the values of acceptance, hard work and what being a good person meant.
“I came from parents that knew what was important and what wasn’t important,” Teti says. “They never pushed me into anything, only to be nice to my brothers and sisters, family, elders and be respectful. The greatest gift that my parents gave us was each other.”
For Teti, rowing not only opened up the opportunity to attend college but the privilege to travel the world.
“Before I made the rowing team, the farthest I had ever been from West Philadelphia was to the Jersey Shore,” he says. “The farthest I had even gone from my house was 55 miles away. I’d never been on an airplane before and now here I am.”
From Greece to Amsterdam to South Korea and Switzerland, Teti has come a long way from the boy born and raised in West Philly. And an even longer way from the fist-pumpin’ Jersey Shore.
His journey around the world started when he met Allen Rosenberg during his Sunday shift at the local gas station. Rosenberg was the head coach for the USA men’s rowing team during the 1964 Olympics, in which the men’s coxed eight took home the gold medal.
No one would match this feat until 2004, when Teti coached the men’s coxed eight to an Olympic gold medal.
“One day, this famous coach … came into the gas station and said ‘Hey, this guy that rowed in the pair, his partner retired so we’re looking for another partner for him. You come and row with me.’ And I said okay so I got to try it,” Teti says. “So I was just there, I was pumping gas in this guy’s car and next thing you know I had this opportunity to try out for the pair, which I made and went on to compete at the World Championships.”
Teti’s first taste of Olympic exposure came in the summer of 1988, where he was selected to compete in the men’s coxed eight, which took place in Seoul, South Korea. Though the bronze medal the men’s team won that summer left a sour taste in most competitors’ mouths, Teti stayed upbeat.
Despite all of his success, Teti treats every failure and accomplishment as a humbling experience.
“When I was on the medal podium, you’re looking out at the grandstands and I saw a couple athletes that were on our team and I knew that they were as good or better than me and they weren’t going to have an Olympic medal, so it’s a little bit humbling,” he says.
“Initially you’re disappointed, but then once you get to the podium, you start thinking like ‘Okay, when I was 17, did I ever think I was going to be standing here right now?’ No.”
“It was more of a hope or a dream but you never really thought it would come to fruition. I felt really lucky that I was able to have an Olympic medal.”
Teti’s love for rowing trumps all struggle and sacrifice. He rowed because he liked it, as simple as that. For Teti, it will never be about the medals and honors. A truly humble man of his successes, Teti attributes all of his success to his simple love for the sport.
“Even if I was terrible, I would have still rowed,” Teti says. “I liked it, I liked being down in the water, I liked the people, I liked the training. All these Olympic stories you hear about with the sacrifice and the training but to me it was never like that. I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything, I was doing what I wanted to do and I liked it.”
In 1997, Teti was able to experience another side of rowing, coaching, selected as the USA Rowing Head Coach. In his first three years as head coach, Teti led the men’s coxed eight to back-to-back gold medals at the World Championship. In 2004, Teti coached the men’s coxed eight to Olympic gold in the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Not only was this the first time that the U.S.A. men’s coxed eight had won the Olympic gold since 1964, they also did so by setting a groundbreaking world record. But Teti doesn’t take credit for the accomplishment, instead giving the credit to his athletes.
“I got to be able to coach these really great guys,” Teti says. “I had exceptional athletes. I was proud of the accomplishments but it was just a humbling experience.”
Teti’s outstanding coaching performances have earned him prestigious awards, such as the U.S. Rowing National Coach of the Year and induction into their Hall of Fame.
But to Teti, these awards are simply opportunities for him to thank all of the people who got him to where he is today — yet another Olympic Games.
His decision to join the rowing team his last year of high school enhanced his life in ways he could have never imagined.
“For a kid whose father didn’t finish high school,” Teti says, “to be able to have the opportunity to travel around the world and go to the Olympics, whether as an athlete or a coach, is pretty special.”